Harassment of independent Uzbek journalists heats up

New York, January 15, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Uzbek authorities today to immediately cease their campaign of intimidation against the handful of independent journalists remaining in the Central Asian country. 

From January 7-9, at least six journalists were called in for “an informal talk” at the Tashkent prosecutor’s office, and at least four of them were interrogated about their work. None were given an official summons, according to local press reports and CPJ interviews. Two of the six refused to appear before the prosecutor without a formal summons. The four who did—Sid Yanyshev, Khusniddin Kutbiddinov, Aleksei Volosevich, and Marina Kozlova—were all interrogated by the same official, an assistant to the Tashkent prosecutor, Bakhrom Nurmatov, the independent regional news Web site Ferghana reported.

Nurmatov questioned each journalist and showed them their detailed, government-compiled personal dossiers, which contained articles, biographical information, and documents pointing to state surveillance conducted on each of them. At the end of the interrogation, each was asked to write their personal responses to the prosecutor’s questions, according to CPJ interviews.

The journalists have contributed in the past to international media outlets such as the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), The Associated Press, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, as well as to independent regional news Web sites, such as Ferghana, Uznews, and CentrAsia.

“We are outraged by this new wave of harassment against the few remaining independent journalists in Uzbekistan,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the the Uzbek National Security Service and the Foreign Ministry to explain publicly the grounds for conducting surveillance and compiling security dossiers on our colleagues. We also call on Bakhrom Nurmatov to publicly explain the reasons for his interrogation of the journalists. This blatant intimidation campaign must end.”

On January 7, Nurmatov phoned journalists, telling them that he had received their personal files from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry and National Security Service (SNB). Yanyshev and Kutbiddinov told CPJ that Nurmatov accused them of practicing biased journalism that insulted Uzbekistan’s government. Nurmatov then asked the journalists to confirm their authorship of specific articles he pulled from their files, reveal any pennames they might use, and name the media outlets they contribute to. He also asked them about their participation in the monthly discussions organized by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent for local journalists. Nurmatov said he was confirming the material in the files.

The journalists were interrogated without legal counsel. Yanyshev told CPJ that Nurmatov assured him over the phone that there was no need for him to bring a lawyer since he was not being charged with anything. In addition to journalists’ articles, the dossiers contained copies of the reporters’ personal bank transactions, lists of activities they had allegedly participated in, and biographical information.

Kutbiddinov told CPJ that during the interrogation, Nurmatov showed him a 2008 government-sponsored documentary in which he was featured. The film, which originally aired on several state-controlled television stations, disclosed the home addresses and publicized personal information about the relatives of RFE/RL correspondents. (Kutbiddinov had in the past contributed to RFE/RL. The station was kicked out of Uzbekistan in the post-Andijan crackdown on the international and independent media.)

Kutbiddinov told CPJ that Nurmatov also asked him about his relationship with imprisoned journalist Dilmurod Saiid, and his alleged cooperation with international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.